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A dumbbell's guide to CrossFit and weightlifting

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

You don't want to anger a weightlifter. So I suggest you keep in mind a distinction the athletes make: There's "weightlifting" and "weight lifting." The latter is just picking up heavy stuff, but the former is an internationally recognized sport that dominated the workout world in the early 20th century.

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For decades, however, America's fitness industry has virtually abandoned the athletic pursuit, also known as Olympic lifting, in favor of new equipment, fads and methods. "It is almost a forgotten way to train. People just want to bounce around," says Greg Haff, vice president of the National Strength and Conditioning Association and an assistant professor at West Virginia University School of Medicine.

So why the shift away from a total-body technique that's pretty much guaranteed to make you run faster, jump higher and get stronger? "What works usually sells," Haff says. "But it's a lot of work."

To stage a comeback, weightlifting needed an army of advocates who not only didn't mind the challenge, but relished it. And it seems to have found that through CrossFit, a 15-year-old methodology for producing well-rounded athletes that's found huge success among law enforcement, the military and, these days, the general population. Devotees can either stick with the "Workout of the Day" posted on the CrossFit Web site, or they can visit a CrossFit-affiliated training facility; in about five years, 81 such places have popped up in the District, Maryland and Virginia.

Every single one of them sweats the two "O lifts": the snatch (a single, continuous motion that requires lifting the barbell from the ground and forcing yourself under it so that you're standing with your arms locked in extension above you) and the clean and jerk (start by pulling the weight from the ground to your shoulders, then dip and drive the bar overhead, splitting your legs into a half lunge to get the power to extend your arms upward).

If you've never heard of the moves, you're like most of Allison Jetton's friends. The 28-year-old Arlington resident has had trouble explaining exactly what she has been doing during CrossFit classes and personal training sessions the past few months at Balance Gym in Thomas Circle: "People are like, 'You're cleaning? You're dating a jerk?' " But she has fallen for the feeling of raising a hefty barbell over her head -- and how it has made her clothes fit.

"Women are usually lined up on treadmills with a magazine aerobicizing themselves to oblivion," she says. "I tried that. I didn't find it effective."

Her trainer, Quint Fischer, hasn't been involved in the sport that much longer, but he got hooked the same way. "CrossFit was a gateway drug to Olympic lifting," the 26-year-old D.C. resident says. Less than three years ago, he was doing CrossFit workouts with a buddy, but they were leaving out the O lifts. "I didn't have the confidence to do it," says Fischer, who wasn't about to try hoisting heavy weight without guidance. Now that he's a certified USA Weightlifting coach, he realizes how smart it was to wait.

"Everything comes down to monitoring," says Haff, who notes that the injury rates for weightlifting are low because of the culture of supervision. The lifts take just a few seconds each, but they're incredibly technical. "And if you learn it wrong at the beginning, it'll be ingrained," he adds.

Haff's main beef with CrossFit, which he praises for resurrecting weightlifting in America, is that it promotes doing high numbers of reps in a set time frame. That, he says, can be a recipe for form falling apart.

To prevent problems, most facilities start newbies off with a piece of PVC pipe, so they're not concerned about weight at all. It helps people get used to the concept of allowing the hips and legs to create movement, explains Jesse Woody, a weightlifting competitor and coach who runs the barbell club at D.C.'s Primal Fitness (and who trained Fischer). In the gym's week-long CrossFit intro sessions, one day is devoted exclusively to the O lifts, but Woody always warns that even a month-long class wouldn't cut it.

Although he has been weightlifting seriously for six years, the 30-year-old admits he's far from mastery. "As long as I'm capable of doing it, there will still be improvements to be made," says Woody, which is remarkable when you consider that the sport is defined by just two moves.

But each of those can be broken into a series of steps, including the squat and the dead lift, which combine to create a "giant palette of exercises," according to Haff. "I've tried to stop weightlifting and I get bored," he says. "Nothing is as boring as bicep curls."

He won't hear any argument from Matt Gary, who opened Supreme Sports Performance & Training in Rockville in 2009 to be a home specifically for weightlifters and powerlifters. "There's a gym on every corner in this market," Gary says. "But there aren't too many facilities like us."

And he's right. Even with the explosion of CrossFit, it can still be difficult to find a place with certified coaches and the proper equipment. But that may soon be changing. "People are coming to understand how results-oriented these movements are," Gary says. Rather than being a rarefied thing people watch on TV every four years, Fischer predicts Olympic lifting will eventually find a place in the everyman -- and woman -- exercise arsenal.

When that happens, Jetton will finally be able to work out in peace. These days, whenever she's honing her technique on her own at a health club near home in Arlington, she gets a lot of stares followed by, "What are you training for?" Jetton always has the same response: "Life."

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